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Linksys bucks trend, will support open source firmware on WRT routers

We’ve previously covered how some router companies are planning to kill their support for open-source firmware updates after June 2. But one company, Linksys, has explicitly stepped forward to guarantee some its devices will remain open source compatible. The June 2 date is from the FCC, which has mandated that router manufacturers prevent third-party firmware loading, in order to ensure that devices cannot be configured to operate in bands that interfere with Doppler weather radar stations.

According to the FCC’s regulations and statements, open source firmware isn’t banned — it just has to be prevented from adjusting frequencies into ranges that conflict with other hardware. The problem is, this is considerably more difficult than just banning open source firmware altogether, which is why some companies have gone the lockdown route. Linksys won’t be retaining firmware compatibility on all its products, but the existing WRT line will remain compatible. Starting on June 2, new routers will store their RF data in a different location from the rest of the data on the router.

“They’re named WRT… it’s almost our responsibility to the open source community,” Linksys router product manager Vince La Duca told Ars. WRT is a naming convention that dates back more than a decade to 2005’s WRT54G. That router was the first product supported by third-party firmware after Linksys was forced to release the source code for the device under the terms of the General Public License (GPL). This writeup from 2005 examines why third-party firmware became popular for the WRT54G if you feel like taking a walk down memory lane.

That said, we’re definitely seeing open-source firmware support being used as a marketing strategy. Linksys will lock down all devices that aren’t specifically marketed as supporting open-source firmware. If sales of WRT devices spike as a result, other companies will almost certainly invest in creating support of their own. While this would practically fill the niche for open-source compatible devices, it’ll come at the cost of part of what made these devices popular. Until now, projects like DD-WRT or OpenWRT were ways of getting the performance and features of a much more expensive router baked into much cheaper products.

It’s not clear what other manufacturers will do. Making WRT continue to work under the FCC’s guidelines required a three-way collaboration between Marvell, Linksys, and OpenWRT authors, as Ars Technica details. Most companies apparently weren’t prepared to make this kind of transition. It’s not clear when they’ll respond or how enthusiastic they’ll be about making changes to existing products.

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